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Obstacles to innovation

Knowledge about Zika and Chikungunya resulted in several patents, but few products within public reach

Cryoelectron microscopy reconstruction of the Zika (left) and Chikungunya viruses

Starless / Wikimedia Commons | A2-33 / Wikimedoa Commons

A study published in the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation’s Cadernos de Saúde Pública showed the extent to which our scientific knowledge of the Zika and Chikungunya epidemics that hit Brazil in the last decade was translated into the development of technologies to combat these diseases. The study by biotechnologist Maria da Conceição Rodrigues Fernandes, part of her professional master’s degree in intellectual property at the Federal Rural University of the Semi-Arid Region (UFERSA) in Rio Grande do Norte, showed that companies and universities from several countries, especially China and the USA, filed patents related to vaccines, diagnostic tests, and drugs against the two diseases. But they resulted in very few products arriving on the market and gave the public access to almost no technologies of interest.

The patents were identified using the Orbit Intelligence software, a tool that tracks patents globally, and the Brazilian National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI) database. The number of patents related to Zika worldwide reached a peak of 178 in 2017. For Chikungunya, 264 patents were identified in total, but 66 filings predated the epidemic in Brazil.

To determine how many related health products were developed or are under development, the researcher used the Integrity database, now owned by Clarivate Analytics, and consulted the system of the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA). She found 358 drugs and biological products for Zika, most in the preclinical phase. Of these, 19 products were in the early phase of clinical studies and only two antiviral drugs had reached the market. A total of 192 drugs and biologicals were identified for Chikungunya and the only product on the market was molnupiravir, which inhibits replication of the virus.

At ANVISA, there were records of tests to detect both diseases. “Developing and patenting a product is not enough. Other barriers need to be overcome, such as the need for heavy investment, the difficulties carrying out clinical trials, and dealing with regulatory bodies,” stated Fernandes.

The biotechnology researcher says she chose this research topic in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 health crisis, when the economic and social impact of the pandemic and the difficulty of giving the public quick access to vaccines and medicines were being discussed. “I thought that analyzing what happened with the Zika and Chikungunya epidemics could contribute to our understanding of the obstacles to sharing knowledge with society,” says Fernandes, who is now studying a PhD in translational medicine at the Federal University of Ceará.

Luiz Carlos Dias of the Chemistry Institute at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), who did not participate in the study, says the fact that Zika and Chikungunya are tropical diseases that affect poor populations also partially explains the difficulties of producing innovative products and making them available to the public. “A key issue is that these diseases affect neglected populations, victims of exclusion from advances in science, technology, and innovation. The development of a drug or vaccine is a time-consuming and expensive process,” says Dias, head of an international consortium endeavoring to develop new drugs for tropical parasitic diseases and funded by FAPESP.

According to Dias, COVID-19 has made it clear that a perception of risk is enought to attract investment. He believes international cooperation is needed with countries who know how to develop medicines and vaccines. “This tradition does not exist in Brazil.”